A Few of My Favorite Things: The Volume Scorers Edition

J.R. Rider

Coronavirus lockdown has taken us from a state of “I’m addicted to my iPhone and frenetic news cycles” to “I haven’t seen NBA basketball in two-and-a-half months and ‘I can haz NBA classic games?’” In the absence of the present-day NBA, we’ve been taking a deeper look at the past. At risk of heresy–and as much as I wish COVID-19 hadn’t forced the league to suspend the season–I can say that I’ve enjoyed the looks back. While the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, on Michael Jordan and the Bulls, captured the most attention, the Timberwolves have also had an interesting history, replete with bumbles, stumbles, heroes, villains, and other sundry characters. The time off from normalcy has forged some kind of interest in revisiting the Wolves’ weird history and some of the team’s most-interesting characters. 

I’ve been watching the Timberwolves obsessively since the team tipped off its first game on day one of the 1989-90 season ‘til the novel coronavirus put the team out of its misery in March. Since then, I’ve been reading and thinking about how to synthesize 30-plus years of Wolves watching from my own selfish fan’s perspective. Not scientifically, but in light of the oddities and things I’ve found the most interesting in my mind’s own catalog. Hopefully my fever dreams and ramblings will amuse you also. 

Be forewarned: lots of opinions and takes will follow. No, you won’t agree with all of them. But that isn’t the point. Some might fly over your head. Others might go under-the-radar as extreme Wolves-geek esoterica. Some might seem silly. It’s free content, so what do you have to lose? Buyer beware.


Volume Scorers

This edition of A Few of My Favorite Things discusses Wolves players whom I consider to belong to one important category of my favorite things–volume scorers. After all of you efficiency nerds stop rolling your eyes and fidgeting with your TI-86s, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride. No, this listicle won’t take you to the hallowed nirvana of hoops efficiency, but it might jog some memories you can jam to while you await the return of real, live, basketball.

So, here is the short list of *my*–not necessarily your–favorite volume-scorers who donned a Wolves uniform, along with a few random stats that jumped out at me in revisiting their basketball-reference.com pages and some video for those of you who are visual learners or simply appreciate the craft.

Jamal Crawford: J-Crossover had the best handle of anyone who made the list; yes, that means something to me. Brought in by Tom Thibodeau before the 2017-18 season, Crawford played just one season in Minnesota. While wasn’t even a starter, he was the guy who came off the bench to provide buckets. Did he play defense? No. Were his peripheral stats good? Nope. Again, that isn’t the point. This is about volume scoring and the art therein as seen through one observer’s eyes. Aside from handling the ball better than you everyone, volume-scoring is J-Crossover’s basketball mantra. Crawford, who had not retired but remained unsigned when the 2019-20 season was suspended, is probably in a gym somewhere in the Seattle area embarrassing people and teaching his craft to the next generation of Pacific coast ballers. One can rest assured that J-Crossover is *still* a fierce bucket-getter and will be until he’s a very old man. (Editor’s note: Sort of like a real-life version of Uncle Drew, perhaps, with far less grey hair.) Crawford deserves remembrance from Wolves fans for bringing that energy to ‘Sota for a year. Here’s a reminder of some things J-Craw did in his lone season in ‘Sota:

  • James “Hollywood” Robinson: There’s a very special spot in my heart for James Hollywood Robinson, who was one of the Timberwolves’ first–and most brashly unrepentant–volume scorers. He also had the coolest nickname of anyone on this list whose literal nickname isn’t “Ricky Buckets.” Robinson did two stints in Minnesota, in 1996-97 and again 1998-99. Hollywood had his limitations: he never started full-time or average double-figures. In fact, Robinson shot at a sub-40% clip for his career. But whatever he lacked in substance, he made up in style, specializing in high degree of difficulty shots for which a fan can forgive a showman on a below-average team. And he made some mediocreish Wolves teams at least a little bit more fun to watch. At 6’2’’, Robinson was an unconventional shooting guard before the “combo guard” had really come back into vogue in the early 2000s. He made the Star Tribune’s “Moments of Glory” series for scoring 23 points in 9:35 minutes in the fourth quarter of a game he tilted from a blowout loss to…well, it ended as a 12-point loss to the Terrell Brandon-led Cavs. Repeat with me: 23 points in 10 minutes. That projects out to 110 points per 48. Wilt Chamberlain, eat your heart out. A final thing about Hollywood that should be enough by itself to vouch for his elite showmanship: someone (Editor’s note: Maybe him?) uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Greatest Dunk Yell Ever.” (Editor’s note: Robinson also has some ridiculously cool college highlights from his time at Alabama, if you’re feeling adventurous.) Check it out.
  • Rashad McCants: Rashad McCants played for some truly putrid Wolves teams: in his four seasons in Minnesota, spanning from a relatively small role on the Transition to The Lottery 2005-06 squad to the miserable teams of subsequent seasons, until the Wolves traded him midseason to the Kings in 2008-09. While McCants was in town, the Wolves never won more than 33 games. McCants seemed to revel in the role of “volume-scorer-on-a-bad-team.” Did McCants actively make the team worse? Maybe, maybe not. It’s complicated. Okay, okay: there’s reason to suspect he did: in his rookie season–the 33-win-season–he had the likes of KG and the late, great Eddie Griffin on the roster alongside him. By the end, McCants was surrounded by this group, which was so bad collectively it is difficult to pinpoint the blame. (Editor’s note: I appreciate Brian Cardinal and Craig Smith as much as anyone, but rookie K-Love wasn’t like current K-Love and the team’s pieces didn’t fit together well.)

But Shaddy McCants had a knack for getting buckets, with a tough-to-defend rocker step, a well-developed post game, and a soft jump shot at his disposal. At 6’4’’, McCants looked a bit undersized for a shooting guard, but this bag of tricks enabled him to consistently put buckets on the heads of bigger defenders. After a foray into acting, McCants washed out of the league after a brief sojourn in Sacramento and was last seen carrying the Trilogy, of Ice Cube’s Big3 league, to the league’s inaugural championship in 2017. Here’s a video of McCants’ glory days in Minnesota.

  • Anthony Peeler: AP came to the Wolves after stops with the Lakers and Grizzlies. He was perhaps not as much of a chucker as the others in my top-5, and he played a valuable role with some solid KG-led Wolves squads between 1997-98 and 2002-03. Peeler wasn’t a big scorer–he didn’t average double-figures in his overall tenure with the Wolves–but Peeler’s game and gravitas strongly indicated a volume-scorer’s mentality, which is what initially fetched my attention while he was a college star at Missouri in the ‘90s. Also, the music in this highlight mix:
  • Ricky “Buckets” Davis: Ricky “Buckets” Davis, aka “Grits N Gravy,” aka “Slick Rick,” was volume-everything. Davis, who played at Iowa (!), was primarily a gunner, and he infamously demonstrated how much of a statshound he was when he took and intentionally missed a buzzer beater at the opposing team’s hoop so he could scoop up a cheap rebound needed to consummate a meaningless triple-double he ended up notching that night. In reality, Davis was actually a surprisingly good–if only an occasionally willing—passer. That said, few among Ricky’s sizable fanbase were tuning in to see him getting nifty assists. They were there for the buckets.
  • J.R. Rider: Last but not least is my favorite volume-scorer in Wolves history, Isaiah “J.R.” Rider. What separated J.R. from the rest is that, with the exception of Crawford, he was not only a volume scorer, he was also a really competent NBA player. The kind that can help a good team while doing his thing. See, most volume scorers are just niche guys–sometimes, they’re derisively called ”professional scorers.” You’ve seen the type, and you know it when you see it. They’re skilled craftsmen at the art of getting buckets. But they can’t offer the full suite of tools one needs to stand out in the league. Many, like Robinson and McCants, are undersized; some are unathletic; others just can’t defend anybody. These are players who might make a useful 6th man on a decent team. These abilities are what separates Rider, who started his turbulent nine-year career in Minnesota, and went on to lead some solid Portland teams in scoring en route to a playoff berth in each season he played there. The 1997-98 Trailblazers, for example, were a solid 46-36, and Rider led the team in scoring at 19.7 points per game (five points more than their second-leading scorer, Rasheed Wallace). To be sure, in the ‘90s the NBA wasn’t the high-scoring league it is now. But Rider still filled it up. You can check his resume: J.R. led the NCAA in scoring his junior year at UNLV before being drafted fifth overall by the Wolves before the 1993-94 season. In his three seasons in Minnesota, he either led or was tied for the team’s highest average ppg each year while winning a memorable dunk contest as well–a further testament to the kind of flair and showmanship that radiated from his body whenever he stepped on the court. 

Conclusion: Honorable Mentions

These are some other guys I thought about adding to the list but ultimately left off for various reasons. Troy Hudson probably deserved more love in this article, but c’est la vie. Rest assured, he could get buckets.

  • Shabazz Muhammad
  • Tony Campbell
  • Troy Hudson
  • Gerald Glass

Till next time.

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Notes on a Media Day

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The Wolves hosted Media Day on Monday, marking the beginning of the 2019-20 season.  Aside from the visual experience of seeing each player — many new faces among them — the main event is the line of press conferences.  They began with a joint conference from #RosasAndRyan, and then ticked off every one of the guys on the preseason roster.

Here are a few simple observations of this writer: Continue reading

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast (ep. 17): The Preseason Edition

jmp 004 Timberwolves Media Day

Commentary on the Minnesota Timberwolves and the National Basketball Association.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 16

In which we discuss the Timberwolves near the season’s end point, player development, potential draft prospects, and more.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 15

Ricky Rubio has been the subject of recent trade rumors

Ricky Rubio has been the subject of recent trade rumors

In which we discuss the Timberwolves at the midseason point, Ricky Rubio trade rumors, how the Wolves’ young core compares to others, and potential 2017 draft prospects.

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NOTICE OF BLOG CHANGE

In case you missed it, we are now writing for A Wolf Among Wolves. (awolfamongwolves.com).

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INBOX: Over/Unders, Pek, KG

Nikola Pekovic’s injuries could force him to sit on the Wolves bench for the entire 2016-17 season

Nikola Pekovic’s injuries could force him to sit on the Wolves bench for the entire 2016-17 season

Timberwolves training camp opens on Monday with their annual Media Day. Once the players and coaches are on the floor, doing actual basketball stuff, we’ll be better equipped to carry on substantive Wolves discussion. Meanwhile, there are a couple of team issues and one gambling-related Wolves item to kick around in these final dog days of NBA offseason. 

Over/Unders

Andy G: Vegas released its NBA over/unders. That’s always a fun and interesting wrinkle to the “gearing up for the season” #process.

Let’s cut to the chase:

The gamblers set the Wolves at 41.5 wins.

They won 29 last season.

They won 15 the season before that.

Is picking 42 or more wins a crazy proposition?

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INBOX: Thoughts on Kris Dunn’s Upcoming Rookie Season

 

Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn

 

Kris Dunn’s rookie peers recently selected him as “most likely to win NBA Rookie of the Year.” Yes, that sounds a lot like a high-school yearbook superlative.

Believe it or not, the superlatives do not always reveal the truth: the 2015-16 equivalent was 76ers big man Jahlil Okafor, who had all kinds of times. But he was not nearly as good as Karl Towns.

So, what have we got here? Much ado about nothing? Or does Dunn’s selection (probably) portend special things for his career? It’s early, but it’s the internet. So why not discuss? We discuss some initial thoughts on Kris Dunn below the fold.

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Tyus Jones: The 1 & Done Who Wasn’t?

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A few years ago, I heard about a conversation that Rick Pitino had about local prep star, Tyus Jones. I was one layer of hearsay removed from it, and it’s been a few years, but here is the general gist of what Pitino apparently said about the Apple Valley prospect:

“Tyus Jones is not a ‘one-and-done.’ He thinks he’s a one-and-done, but he is not a one-and-done.”

It wasn’t an earth-shattering assessment of Tyus, if you had seen what he looked like — scrawny and maybe not even six-feet tall — but I found the phrasing sort of interesting, especially from somebody in Pitino’s position. Pitino probably recruited Jones to play for him at Louisville, and in that process he came away thinking that the kid was more confident about his pro prospects than he should have been. (Also, Pitino’s son Richard had recently taken over the University of Minnesota coaching job, and he was definitely trying to recruit Jones. I’m sure father and son compared notes.) Despite his high hopes for himself, thought Pitino, Jones was not going to be ready for the NBA within nine months of stepping foot on whatever campus he chose. (Duke, as it turned out.)

A few years later, was Pitino right or wrong?

I mean, Tyus was, literally, a one-and-done. He went to Duke, won a national championship (and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors) and was selected by Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.

In that respect, Pitino was wrong.

But last year as an NBA rookie, in terms of Tyus’s actual production and overall readiness as an NBA player, Pitino’s assessment was probably validated too. Tyus was overwhelmed in many of his rookie-year stints on the floor. Sam Mitchell remained loyal to the unexpectedly-fallen Flip Saunders and committed to development over “win now” strategies. He played youngsters like Jones the minutes they needed to learn on the job. But in Tyus’s case more than anyone else’s, there was question of whether those minutes were constructive or discouraging.

Jones shot a miserable 35.9 percent from the field. Worse than his shooting percentage was the drop-off in Timberwolves quality of play when Jones manned the point instead of Ricky Rubio. With Rubio at the helm they actually outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, With Tyus, they were outscored by a whopping 10.0 per 100. That is like dropping from a 7 or 8 seed level of play down to the worst team in the entire league.

But watching Jones, three things stood out that gave some hope that his future might still be bright, even if it would require patience.

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KAT the 5, or KAT the Eventual 5?

kat

Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:

  1. I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
  2. Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.

But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.

In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:

  • 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
  • 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
  • 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.

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The Rubio Referendum

This was me, a week ago, after reading some mocks and predictions that had the Wolves selecting either a point guard (Kris Dunn) or a shooting guard (Jamal Murray) with the fifth pick in the draft:

Right around the time that the Wolves selection of Dunn was announced on Thursday night, Woj crystallized my earlier sentiment with this:

These intertwined pieces of important Timberwolves information hit us like a 1-2 punch; leaving Timberwolves Nation collectively… well, perhaps a little bit “punch drunk,” in the 48 hours that followed. On Twitter, I think I pretty much observed the gamut of “takes.”

“This doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is gone. Maybe they can play together.”

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The Punch Drunk Running Draft Diary

bowties

Bowties were the look, last night. H/t Stephanie, Patrick J’s wife, for this collage.

[We decided to do a running diary of last night’s draft. This started about a half hour before the draft began, and it ended around the time Orlando drafted Sabonis at 11 and quickly traded him to OKC. At that point, it still seemed like a Kris Dunn/Jimmy Butler trade was imminent. Over the weekend, we’ll digest all that emerged from last night — most significantly, the reports that Ricky Rubio’s days in Minnesota might be numbered. For now, enjoy the live reactions to the draft, outlined below. -AG]

Andy G: We’re both watching this draft on our respective couches, fully equipped in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh with Twitter, ESPN, and cold beverages. Let’s do a live diary from now (apprx 6:25 CST, 35 minutes until draft time) until after the Wolves pick at 5. (Or until they trade, or whatever they do.)

Wolves Twitter is an uneasy place right now. Woj is at the wheel, telling us that we’re taking Buddy Hield if Kris Dunn is off the board. He’s also saying that Rubio’s name is coming up in trade talks. Ian Begley from ESPN says that the Wolves dangled LaVine and the 5 for Jimmy Butler.

Are we going to recognize the Timbewolves roster beyond Wig & KAT tomorrow?

Patrick J: I hope so. It took this long to get to where we are, which isn’t so bad.

Andy G: Booing Adam Silver just seems wrong.

Patrick J: Booing Adam Silver should be a crime of some sort. #CasualObservation

Andy G: They’re showing ‘96 Draft footage. That was the most excited I’ve ever been about the Wolves. Turns out maybe keeping Shuttlesworth would’ve been the right play. Kevin McHale and 8th Grade Me had no way of knowing.

Patrick J: I wanted Marbury then too. Still probably would, against my better judgment. Will we be thinking the same about Ben Simmons (for the 76ers) or for whoever the Twolves pick at #5 tonight? (Eds. Note: Patrick J is weaving between his keyboard, saag paneer takeout, and beer. Even the most ambidextrous might have trouble with that combo.)

Andy G: BEN SIMMONS! I think I’ve been over-thinking the Ben Simmons question marks. He’s a pretty awesome talent.

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Go Big or Go Home: Thoughts on this Timberwolves Draft Pick

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Buddy Hield & Dragan Bender

I’m sitting here watching Jalen Rose and Jay Williams on TV, discussing who the Timberwolves should draft tomorrow night with the fifth overall selection. Their mock of course has Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram off the board before the Wolves pick. They also have Providence’s Kris Dunn — a player the Timberwolves have reportedly shown interested in — taken before five. And they have Washington’s Marquese Chriss going fourth to the Suns, one spot ahead of the Wolves.

Rose: At number five–

Williams: –Minnesota, a team of slashers, what are you gonna do?

Rose: You need a spot-up shooter. You have Wiggins, you have LaVine, you have Karl-Anthony Towns inside, you have Rubio at the point. That’s my spot up shooter. [Rose points at the screen, where he’s got Jamal Murray going to the Wolves.]

Williams: Really? See, when I think about Minnesota, I think about THE BEST spot-up shooter in the draft. I’d replace him with Buddy Hield. I think you already have enough guys who can handle the ball with LaVine and Rubio and that whole cast of characters, and Wiggins. I think Buddy Hield is a really good fit on that team.

Rose: When Coach Cal is on the phone with his good friend TOM THIBODEAU, he’s bringing out lottery picks every year, and what Coach Cal wants he normally gets!

Chad Ford, ESPN’s draft expert and prognosticator, also has Jamal Murray going to the Wolves at five. In his Mock Draft 9.2 (Insider) he writes that, “Murray’s shooting and ability to play both the 1 and the 2 give them a versatile, go-to scorer to put alongside Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine.”

In other words, Ford views a Murray selection as the Wolves drafting a “third guard,” which is either a bench player or the starting two, depending on how LaVine’s career shakes out.

A couple days ago, Ford and Jay Bilas co-authored a mock draft piece where Ford predicted who each team would select, while Bilas analyzed who they SHOULD take. In that piece, Ford predicted Murray to the Wolves, while Bilas thought they should take Hield.

…….

To me, this is a little bit alarming, and I hope Thibodeau & Layden (that sounds like a personal injury law firm) are thinking much differently than ESPN’s finest seem to be.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 14

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In which we look ahead at the Wolves options in the NBA Draft.

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On enjoying Thunder-Warriors

The highest praise that I can think of for this Thunder-Warriors matchup — and I guess I’m thinking about tonight’s Game 6 more than anything — is that I cannot even decide how to best experience it.

Whether to invest emotions into the outcome is a starting point. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been cheering for OKC in these playoffs. I loved seeing them take down the Spurs, and I have enjoyed even more how they’ve been upsetting these incredible, 73-win, defending-champion Warriors. I could make up a rationale about wanting to see Durant validated with a ring, or something about Westbrook being the best live entertainer in the league (which is true), but I think the truth is that I just tend to cheer for the best team that hasn’t won it yet.

Sports fandom at this level has an inherent ridiculousness to it, and it only gets dumber when people try to rationalize their feelings. But one problem with caring too much about whether the Thunder win, or the Warriors win — setting aside the risk of being upset if things don’t go your way — is that by doing so you forfeit the simple experience of witnessing history play out with clear eyes.

That might mean focusing too much on officiating, or whether a certain elbow or kick is worthy of a Flagrant 1 or 2. It might mean chalking up Steph Curry’s on and off struggles to injury, or perceived uncalled fouls instead of thinking about, and observing how this is the first time he’s been seriously tested since becoming the world’s top player. It might mean, depending on how things shake out, missing the moment when Durant takes that title back away from him.

There is so much going on in this series to fascinate hoops junkies:

  • Splash Brothers
  • Thunder’s switching defense, which might be Curry’s Kryptonite
  • Small ball vs Offensive rebounding
  • Draymond Green teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Westbrook also teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Durant being amazing
  • Durant being decidedly less amazing when Iguodala is checking him
  • Steve Kerr’s trust in his bench
  • Dion Waiters inexplicable giving Billy Donovan new hope that he can trust his bench too
  • How should (or shouldn’t) the Warriors defend Andre Roberson?
  • Steven Adams
  • Steven Adams and Draymond Green

The list could go on.

I don’t mean to suggest that cheering for one team or the other means going blind to all of the basketball greatness. But attention is a resource and it’d be a shame to waste too much of it on things that don’t matter very much. The best basketball in the world is going to be played tonight, and I plan to do my best to enjoy it for that reason alone.

But I’m also gonna be pissed off if the Thunder blow this chance to close on their home court.

 

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Wolves Drafting 5th: What now?

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We now know where the Wolves will be drafting on June 23rd. Well, unless there’s a trade between now and then. Or a trade on draft night.

Anyway, the Wolves landed 5th overall last night in the lottery. They had the 5th worst record in the league, and the draft order went right in line with reverse league-wide rankings. For the first time ever, the draft order disregards the usual jumble of the lottery format.

About as soon as the order was announced, the takes started coming in hot. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune immediately published a column that calls for the Wolves to draft Buddy Hield, the Oklahoma Sooner who won over the hearts of college basketball fans this past season, winning Naismith Player of the Year honors. Chad Ford published his 7th Mock Draft (!) — first after the order was known — and has Minnesota drafting Kris Dunn from Providence. Dunn is a point guard, and Ford speculates about a future Ricky Rubio trade. (Without such speculation, the choice makes little sense.)

As I write this, Twitter is running hot with takes about trading the pick. Maybe the pick gets packaged with Gorgui Dieng, or Shabazz Muhammad, or even Zach LaVine (or some combination of the three) to land a bigtime veteran like Jimmy Butler. I’ve been teasing the idea of “LaVine and the 5 for Boogie Cousins” for months, while realizing that is a long shot.

The main point is, with the fifth pick, there are countless ways that this could play out. After Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, there is no consensus about who ranks third best, fourth best, fifth best, and so on. The Wolves do not have any clear idea right now about who will be available to draft at 5, and they will undoubtedly survey the league between now and draft night to discover any intriguing trade offers that might arise.

I think there are a few basic guidelines they should try to follow when making decisions with this prized asset that is the fifth pick in the 2016 draft:

  • If you trade it, only trade it for a star.

Along with the whole, “it’s your best chance of adding a star” thing, a lottery pick has value because it gives the team an opportunity to  hold a good player’s rights for 8 or more seasons.  You do not give that up in exchange for a veteran role player via trade who only has 2 or 3 years left on a contract before they either: 1) are no longer any good, due to age and injuries; and/or 2) decide to leave via unrestricted free agency.

You don’t give it up, that is, unless you are getting somebody good enough to justify it. When Boston traded away the 5th Pick (became Jeff Green) for Ray Allen in 2007, that was great for them. Allen was a star. They already had Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson (and quickly flipped Big Al for KG, even better!) and they were able to win a championship and build a mini-dynasty in the East.

Less cool was when the Wizards (led by Flip) traded the 5th Pick to David Kahn in exchange for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. The Wiz wanted to win now, and the move backfired. Whether Washington would have used it on Ricky Rubio like Kahn did, or Steph Curry, the decision to trade the pick for veteran role players proved to be a terrible one.

The Wolves will have a ton of cap room to target role players this summer. They should not use the fifth pick to land one.

  • Do not draft a player to fill a short-term need. Especially shooting.

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Takeaways from Thibs: Wolves Introduce New Coach

The Timberwolves held a press conference this afternoon at Target Center to introduce Scott Layden as General Manager and — more importantly — Tom Thibodeau as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach. Alan Horton kicked things off with brief biographical information about the two newest Wolves employees before handing it off to Glen Taylor for a more personal introduction. Young Wolves players were there in the front row, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones.

What follows are some bullet-point takeaways of mine from the presser. This type of event is a lot like Media Day where most of the statements made are at least partially canned or prepared answers, replete with cliches or phrases, and very few remarks that can be construed as controversial or meaningful. However, I do my best as a fan-blogger with more interpretative leeway than a professional journalist to listen closely and parse what’s said, looking for any shreds of substance possible.

Here goes:

  • Glen wants a championship, badly.

This isn’t very interesting and it certainly isn’t controversial. But it was sort of interesting how Glen compared this particular opportunity to “go for the top,” to two others in his time as Wolves owner: When they had Marbury and Garnett (as my last post discussed) and the 2004 run when they teamed KG with Cassell and Sprewell. Taylor views this as a third opportunity, and he made clear that he views this as a very long-term situation. He all but stated that he is going to remain owner as long as Thibs and Layden are here, and that he thinks it will be longer than the five years each is under contract. He’s committing to something big, deep into the future.

  • Thibs has friends in the Chicago media.

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Wolves Sign Thibs & Things Have Never Looked Brighter

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I think I’ve written before that the 1996 Draft was the apex of my excitement and optimism about my favorite basketball team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. There were a few different reasons for this:

First, it was the summer before eighth grade, so something like excitement about my favorite sports teams was more easily generated. Second, Kevin Garnett, straight out of high school one year earlier, had begun to look like a future superstar toward the end of the previous season. The franchise had its first true sign of positive momentum. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders did what fans had desperately hoped they would do, by trading up in the draft to get Stephon Marbury, the freshman from Georgia Tech.

Marbury, an explosive point guard from New York City, was going to be the Stockton to KG’s Malone; the Payton to Garnett’s Kemp. Everything about it made sense. To make it even more storybook-perfect, the two had already established a friendship. It was a matter of “when,” as opposed to “if,” they would start winning championships together as the best 1-2 punch in basketball.

Of course, those championships never came. Not even close. Things started out great when they made the playoffs immediately. Steph (he wasn’t “Starbury” yet) and Da Kid played like stars together. But everything unraveled after KG signed his massive, lockout-inducing contract extension. Jealousy set in, Marbury was traded away, and — despite Garnett ascending to “all-time great” ranks in Minnesota — the Wolves never even reached the Finals.

The question is, was it wrong to feel excited on that June night in ’96?

And the answer, of course, is no.

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Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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We were hardly given a minute of time to digest The Season That Was before all discussion shifted toward the new search for both a head coach and president of basketball operations. What follows here is my final run through quarterly report cards — this one covers the final 20 games of the season — with some thoughts about each player’s season as a whole, and a final grade.

The 4th Quarter was the Timberwolves best, as they hit a .500 record (10-10). This was much like how they started the season 8-8, but only this time it was on the backs of KAT, Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and even Tyus Jones, instead of the crucial early-season contributions of Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince; elder statesmen who don’t factor into the team’s future. This stretch included road wins at Oklahoma City (!) and Golden State (!!). They also won at Portland and Washington. The Wolves closed the season the way everyone had hoped they would, with momentum heading into next year when reaching the playoffs will be a realistic goal for the first time since 2013.

Here are the final grades, and just a reminder that these are on my subjective curve that takes expectations and role into account:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+, A-)
Season Grade: A-

Rubio’s play was pretty steady all season long. In the final quarter, he shot the ball above his averages (40% from the field, 36.4% from three) but was otherwise about the same as usual, statistically. His per-game averages were 10.4 points, 8.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 2.9 turnovers in 30.5 minutes. These are pretty much right in line with his season averages. Ricky ended the year with career bests in advanced stats like PER (17.6) and win shares per 48 minutes (.119) owing to his combination of career bests in per-36 minutes assists (10.2) and turnovers (3.0, tied with one other season).

For the season, Rubio would get an A- grade. He remains very good or great at most aspects of the game, except for shooting. He might make one of the NBA All-Defense teams. And even with his shaky shot, Rubio helps lead a good team offense. His season offensive rating was 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which was the best among regular Wolves players and signifies good team offense. (Only 5 teams scored better than the Wolves did with Rubio on the floor, this season.) Rubio is a spectacular transition passer and developed chemistry with LaVine, Muhammad and Wiggins on the fast break, as the season moved along.

We often talk about plus/minus, and on/off differential with Rubio, because it so clearly captures his value to the Timberwolves. This season, in the 2,323 minutes that Rubio was on the floor, the Wolves outscored opponents by 18 points. In the 1,653 without him, the Wolves were beaten by 308 points.

He may never make an All-Star Team due to his limited scoring output, but he is clearly a helpful starting point guard, and probably one of the best dozen of them in the world.

Zach LaVine: B (Previous Grades: B+, D, B-)
Season Grade: B-

In the last 20 games of the season, LaVine played almost exclusively shooting guard. This was a welcome change for fans tired of watching Zach struggle to man the point. In the final quarter, LaVine posted great three-point shooting numbers, hitting 2.5 per game on 5.7 attempts (44.2%). His assist-to-turnover ratio was solid for an off guard (2.9 to 1.8). His worst stats, as is usually the case with LaVine, are in the team performance, on/off categories. Even in the shooting guard role, LaVine’s presence on the floor seemed to correlate with worse team performance than when he was on the bench. The numbers reveal that the performance downgrade comes on the defensive end. With Zach in the game, the Wolves had a net rating of (-1.9) in 701 minutes, and when he was on the bench they were (+5.0), which was the best of all “off” ratings during the season’s final quarter.

LaVine gets a B- for the whole season. As a rookie last year, he was not even close to ready for the NBA. This season, he improved a lot, but still has a ways to go. His jumpshot looks more and more like his most useful skill, and if he can work on his defense and court awareness, he could potentially make for an ideal backcourt pair with Rubio. His athleticism, best showcased at the Dunk Contest where he is now a two-time champion, is breathtaking and unmatched by his peers. LaVine learned this year how much easier scoring comes in transition, and he has also embraced three-point shooting. Those are two big steps. His turnovers are down from last year, probably because he isn’t playing point guard.

LaVine’s upside remains high, but this year was more about raising his “floor.” He seems destined to have a long career, which was not necessarily a given when this season began back in October.

Tyus Jones: B (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+, C)
Season Grade: C

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INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau, Sam Mitchell, and Scott Brooks were all members of the Timberwolves organization.

Patrick J: BREAKING: SAM MITCHELL WILL NOT BE RETURNING AS THE TIMBERWOLVES COACH IN 2016-17. Last week, you made the case for the Wolves to bring back Smitch for another season. But roughly one hour after the team’s final game – a 144-109 EVISCERATION of the Unibrow-less New Orleans Pelicans – the Wolves fired Mitchell (de facto) and announced that they’re teaming with an independent firm that specializes in “searches” to fill the coaching vacancy. As a Smitch defender – or at least an expemplar devil’s advocate of his – do you think Glen Taylor has made a bad decision?

Andy G: I’ll give you my answer to most questions:

“It depends.”

If KORN FERRY (the hiring firm) brings us Tom Thibodeau, then I’m all for the change. Thibs is on the short list with Popovich, [Stan] Van Gundy, and Rick Carlisle of the world’s best coaches. If you can get Thibs, you hire him and replace whoever you’ve got — as long as it’s not somebody else on that short list, of course.

As I’ve said many times, in different ways, Sam’s situation with the Wolves improved over the past couple months from, “He’s gotta go,” to “It depends on who replaces him.” That’s how I feel right now. Sam had the Wolves moving in a clear, positive direction in the final stage of the 2015-16 season, and there was every reason to expect more improvement with him as coach next year. Whether Sam deserved the job is less important than the fact that he had the job all season, and he had things going the way people should have wanted them going.

Any change will initially need to bring some level of extra credibility (Thibs) or excitement (Tom Izzo) for fans to feel a sense of positivity about the change. (Eds note: I don’t want Izzo or any other NCAA coach. But a lot of Minnesota-sports fans would love that.) If they instead hire Hoiberg away from the Bulls or Joerger away from the Grizzlies, I don’t see how there’s been a meaningful change.

After the initial announcement and rationalization for New Coach over Sam Mitchell, New Coach needs to prove it on the floor. Next year, that probably means a playoff berth, given the strength of this roster and how this team was playing at season’s end. (This also assumes some roster improvement in the frontcourt and backup guard slots.)

Give Taylor credit for making this decision immediately, though. I very much feared that this would drag out, which would not only cost the Wolves potential opportunities at marquee candidates, but could also jeopardize their draft and offseason preparation.

What did you think of the announcement?

Patrick J: KORN FERRY! (Eds. Note: Patrick J embraces the notion of hiring an “independent” firm with expertise in supporting targeted job searches, but he would have more confidence in a firm not named Korn Ferry.) Continue reading

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